BRANSON, MO. -- Lawrence Welk disappeared from
commercial television 20 years ago, but Alice Hutchinson, 84,
will watch a rerun of his show on Saturday night, as she does
every week. She will tape it and make copies for friends. She
will chat about it for hours online.
And she will not be alone. Twelve years after Welk's death,
"The Lawrence Welk Show" is the highest-rated syndicated
show on public television, reaching an audience of more than
3 million households. His viewers outnumber those for MTV, VH1
and BET on Saturday nights.
Defying a half-century of cultural momentum, they are the counterculture
that time forgot.
"I don't watch much TV because it doesn't interest me,"
said Hutchinson, who came to Branson as she does every year,
to see members of the Welk cast perform onstage. "I had
to learn to tolerate rock and roll because I had teenagers,
but the kind of music Lawrence Welk plays, you never get tired
That music, which was considered square even in its heyday,
is not so much back as it is unexpungeable, a vein of American
taste that survives despite the best efforts of critics, television
programmers and cultural gatekeepers.
On Sept. 2 and 3, 15 members of the Welk television cast taped
a PBS fund-raising special that will air in March 2005 to commemorate
the 50th anniversary of Welk's first series. For the Internet
discussion group welknotes.com, it was an occasion.
Hutchinson attended three tapings at the Welk Resort Champagne
Theater, which stages live performances of Welk shows. Her immersion
in the Welk nation began four years ago when she got WebTV for
her 80th birthday. This was also the day her husband died.
"It really changed my life," she said of the show's
online community. "After retirement, my life had come to
a screeching halt. But Lawrence Welk encourages us old people
because he didn't get famous until he was old enough for Social
Security, so it shows that there's life after midlife."
Welk owes his unlikely legs to a legacy of both resilience
and opportunism. ABC dropped his series in 1971, although it
had high ratings, and Welk began syndicating it himself, selling
it to stations individually.
In 1987, after Welk had retired and the show had fallen off
the air, Robert L. Allen, executive director of the Oklahoma
Educational Television Authority, acquired the rights to syndicate
reruns to public television stations. At first, Allen said,
station executives were dubious. "People thought his accent
was corny," Allen said, recalling Welk's German-inflected
But Welk's aging constituency, Allen said, was suited for public
television. "Commercial stations don't want the older demographic
because they're set in their preferences, so they won't change
their toothpaste." But they are also more likely to donate
money to support their interests, he said. "And once they
make a pledge, they fulfill it. They're very loyal."
Once the audience started to emerge, Allen said, he learned
something about the nature of public television. "We always
felt we were serving an older demographic, but we had no idea
how big until we put up 'The Lawrence Welk Show.' "
Reruns of the weekly TV show -- more than 1,000 episodes were
taped -- run on 279 public TV stations, along with new interviews
with the cast. Ratings are highest in retirement areas.
Each year, the cast produces a fundraising special that ranks
among the top earners for PBS, drawing more than $30 million
since 1987. Even during the recent stock-market plunge, when
many retirees lost much of their nest eggs, "there was
no blip in pledges" from Welk fans, Allen said.
At the gathering in Missouri, Verda Campbell, 69, read a poem
that began, "Branson, here we come." Campbell wore
a denim dress with a large American flag on the chest. Her passions
are Welk and sewing -- both of which she discusses avidly online
-- and she had hoped to embroider musical staves for each Welknotes
member, but ran out of time after about 70. Anyone left out,
she said, could e-mail her if they wanted one.
Like many of the assembled, she remembered watching the show
with her parents or grandparents, and was trying to indoctrinate
her grandchildren. This was her first Welknotes gathering, but
she felt she knew everyone already.
" 'Lawrence Welk' is the only good show that's ever been
on," she said, with a certainty that was characteristic
of the group. "We're trying to tell all the little kids
how important this is. There's not another clean show. All I
watch is the news, which isn't good now."
Eleanor Price, who at 32 is much younger than most members,
described a different family dynamic. She did not grow up watching
Welk on the family TV set. "Even my parents say he's unhip,"
said Price, who works as a legal assistant in Austin, Texas.
But Price got hooked by the interviews with the cast members
that accompany each rerun. She began to see Welk as "an
icon of fringe, wholesome nerdiness," and started to attend
concerts by cast members.
"I like the perseverance, that they continue to perform,
even if it's in high school gymnasiums or senior expos, after
they had been huge stars," she said.
Yet all is not bubbles in the Welk world. After this season,
the Welk Resort Champagne Theater will replace the Welk stage
show with more modern acts. "It's been 11 years,"
said Larry Welk, 64, who now oversees his father's empire. "We
need something that will draw a broader audience for a long
For Terry Lewis, 59, a retired nuclear worker from Oak Ridge,
Tenn., the news seemed one more gloomy prediction that might
or might not come true. Lewis described herself as a "semi"
Welk fan, meaning that she goes to about six Welk shows a year,
but does not participate on Welknotes.com. Mainly, she said,
she attends to be with her mother, Hutchinson.
"This has filled a void in her life," Lewis said.
"After my dad died, for a while there she was so angry
that my dad left her alone. This helped her over that."